Opinion: The push to pull out of Urban Shield, and other criticism of the police is hurting Berkeley

Pulling out of Urban Shield will mean a loss of highly trained, experienced and dedicated officers and the city’s future ability to properly respond to disaster events.

The 2018 Urban Shield exercise will take place on a weekend in September. Its focus this year is on mass care and sheltering operations critical to recovery after an emergency.

There is a special meeting of the City Council on July 23 followed by a vote on whether Berkeley Police Department will be attending these tactical training exercises.

A City Council subcommittee on Urban Shield was formed in response to an activist-filled City Council session expressing their opposition to Urban Shield. After a year of holding meetings, the subcommittee members passed 3 to 1 a recommendation that Berkeley Police Department not be allowed to participate in these emergency response tactical training exercises as they have done for the last decade. (Mayor Jesse Arreguín later changed his vote.)

There are a number of problems with this report but my comments are confined to this report’s startling lack of balance when considering the value of Urban Shield training to our community. One glaring example is that the report does not point to a single incident considered as poorly handled by Berkeley police officers and attributed to Urban Shield training. And yet, the authors recommend suspending the police department’s participation in these emergency response tactical training exercises.

Since this council was formed at the end of December 2016 some members of council have labeled the Berkeley Police Department a serious impediment to our community’s well being. The Berkeley Police Association has polled their constituency and learned that 80% of the department is contemplating employment elsewhere. Consider the following:

  • The size of the force is now at a historic low. Sworn officers have left Berkeley citing lack of community support, skills training and specialized assignments as their reasons to either retire early or accept better opportunities elsewhere.
  • The city is having difficulty filling sworn officer positions and may be forced to lower its standards for employment in order to attract applicants.
  • Reports of violent crime are ticking upward. In the first six months of 2018, Berkeleyside reported a total of 29 gun-related incidents: robberies, shootings including one death, and a sexual assault at gunpoint – 14 more gun-related crimes than in all of 2017.

The mayor has repeatedly commended Berkeley PD for its “great track record over the years,” and wrote: “It has some of the best-trained and most educated officers, and has avoided the type of scandals that plague many agencies. We value and respect our officers and want to help them do their jobs.”

One example of the exemplary conduct of our officers, not mentioned in the subcommittee report, is the marked difference between the outcome of the 2017 UC Berkeley campus free speech demonstration that ended in a riot and the two 2017 free speech demonstrations in the city of Berkeley that were considerably more peaceful.

The subcommittee report does not mention how the Berkeley police department’s diminishing pool of highly skilled officers is affecting the department’s ability to do its work. Those officers leaving the department are our talented and highly skilled professionals who, over the years, have brought widespread recognition to Berkeley for its community policing programs and for their tactical and lifesaving skills such as their response in the Henry Bar active shooter incident and in the balcony collapse. They are the officers who mentored newcomers to Berkeley’s community policing ethos.

Our police and fire chiefs have repeatedly said that Urban Shield training is vital to our city for testing the city’s response plans to the wide range of disasters our first responders and city departments will have to manage. I agree. Plans are nothing more than piles of paper gathering dust if not practiced and practiced repeatedly. The subcommittee report does not include a recommendation for a credible alternative training program because none exists. Nor does the subcommittee report point out that withdrawal from the program means that Berkeley PD could have up to a decade-long wait to reenter the Urban Shield emergency response tactical training exercises. The wait list to become participants is long.

If you share my concern about the loss of highly trained, experienced and dedicated officers and the city’s future ability to properly respond to disaster events, I ask you write to the City Council. Council members have heard from activists against Urban Shield participation for nearly a year now but have not heard much from the broader public. Now is the time. Write to council@cityofberkeley.info.

Editor’s Note: Berkeleyside updated the publication time after publication due to a technical issue with our daily newsletter. No other changes were made.

Victoria Legg is active in the CERT program and is also a member of the Disaster and Fire Safety Commission. She has participated in Urban Shield as a CERT volunteer assisting fire department teams in their exercises, in a CERT training exercise and as an observer of emergency response tactical training exercises.